If you happen to be taking a trip along the Silk Road through China, make sure to allow a couple days in Zhangye. It is rapidly becoming a tourist destination, mainly domestically but with international travelers as well. The town itself doesn’t have great infrastructure for the international tourist though it’s not too hard to manage, even without knowing Chinese. Luckily, there are a few restaurants with photos you can point at to order, or if you cant find one there is always cup of noodles, which is usually a last resort for me. Do however be prepared to be stared at wherever you go, which can be annoying at times, but it’s something that can happen in smaller cities in China.
What to see
The main attraction of Zhangye, the Danxia Landform Geopark has started to appear on all the Top Natural Wonders of the world lists- you know, the ones on Buzzfeed and Huffington Post. The pictures are beautiful, with rainbow layers as far as the eye can see. Although I was skeptical that it would look like the photos, I really wanted to go. It is also a perfect stop over in between Silk Road sights, and as a bonus, the new high-speed rail from Lanzhou to Urumqi has a stop in Zhangye.
So what is the Danxia Landform? Well, it’s badlands, similar to ones you can find in the US, but to my surprise, even more colorful. Remember I said I was skeptical? I thought all the photos were photoshopped, and although I still think some may have been, the colors in the formations are breathtaking.
The park is relatively new and well organized. First off, there is no driving in the park, and everyone has to take buses from one place to another. Each stop allows for lots of walking to different platforms to enjoy the views in all different directions. Keep in mind that different parts of the day will allow for different lighting, and will change the colors of the badlands.
The other, lesser known and visited attraction, located about an hour drive from the city it Mati Si. This is a smaller Buddhist grotto complex located within Sunan Yugu Autonomous Prefecture. The Yugu minority group live in the area and can be seen throughout the Mati Si complex. They practice Tibetan Buddhism, so you will see the colorful prayer flags all over, but they dress very differently than their Tibetan neighbors. The area is beautiful with green pastures as far as the eye can see, all the way up to the base of huge mountains jutting up with waterfalls and wildflowers. It is amazing that this lush mountainous landscape can be located so close to a desert oasis town. The beautiful landscape provides an excellent backdrop for the centuries-old grottos, mostly in a state of decay, but interesting nonetheless.
There isn’t much information on Mati Si, which made things a bit confusing when visiting, but it is worth the trip. You should plan to spend the whole day there, as there is more to see than just the grottos. Hiring a car is the easiest way to get out to the area, but there are local buses that will bring you to the closest town where you can catch a taxi.
The city of Zhangye also has a few attractions that will not disappoint. One of the first places to go, especially if you are hungry or want to do some people watching is the pedestrian street. Most attractions in town are easily reached by walking. I was mostly interested in the Giant Buddha Temple, but saw there was also an old wooden pagoda along the way. It was easy to spot the pagoda and it was an impressive structure but I decided not to spend the 50CNY to walk up the pagoda. So I just snapped some photos from the outside and was on my way.
As I arrived at the Giant Buddha Temple, I was a bit confused about where to buy tickets. It seems like they were in the process of moving the ticket counter, possibly to account for more tourists, but it made finding the entrance a little difficult. Finally we arrived at the entrance to the temple where we found the ticket office. It costs 41CNY for entrance, which seemed like a lot, but I had read it was one of China’s largest reclining Buddhas, and that the temple was over 900 years old. Of course it has been restored over the years, but I was eager to see how it had survived all that time. I was not disappointed. The reclining Buddha is beautiful, and the wooden façade is beautifully carved. The temple complex also has two different museums. Sadly, nothing is in English, but it is worth a look around.
Seeing as how there isn’t a whole lot of information on some of the attractions, I thought an example itinerary would be helpful for visiting Zhangye. I would highly recommend adding this to any itinerary through Gansu, and again, the high-speed rail makes it a nice place to break up your trip between Lanzhou and Jiayuguan or Lanzhou and Dunhuang.
My mistake when visiting was that I saw both Mati Si and the Danxia Landforms on the same day. In hindsight it would have been better to visit them on separate days. So, instead, I would plan my trip to Zhangye like this:
Day 1: Arrive in Zhangye, check into hotel. Head to the pedestrian street near the Marco Pollo statue. Find something to eat and maybe a beer while people watching.
Day 2: Hire a car and head to Mati Si. It takes about an hour to get there from town, but the drive is very beautiful once you get out of town. Spend the whole day, or at least a few hours, hiking to see the waterfalls. You can also choose to take a horse ride through the grasslands and wander through all the grottos. Some of the grottos can be reached via a road and a parking lot, but there are many grottos that can only be reached by hiking. Have lunch at the entrance to the park, and head back to town. Enjoy a nice evening stroll through the pedestrian street, and try some local street food.
Day 3: First arrange a car to the Danxia formations for later in the afternoon because the light on the formations around sunset is great for photos. After arranging a car, I would then head to town for some local breakfast, maybe some steamed buns or soup. Because this town is slowly adjusting to it’s new role as a tourist destination, you wont find any western breakfast restaurants here. After breakfast take a walk to the wooden pagoda and Giant Buddha Temple. Again, I didn’t opt to go up the bell tower as I thought it cost too much but it is very beautiful from the outside. After you have seen the bell tower cross the street to enter the Giant Buddha Temple. This should take about 2-3 hours depending on how interested you are. Now it’s time for lunch, and maybe some tea. After that, have a rest or do a little shopping until you head out to the Danxia Formations. I would allow at least 2 hours to explore and walk around the formations.
Have you been to Zhangye? What was your favorite part of visiting the city?